The Frightful Prospect of Truth-Telling
Further thoughts on why we lie.
Posted January 31, 2018
If the truth be told, most of us humans bear out the veracity of Mark Twain’s statement that people are never more truthful than when acknowledging ourselves as liars. We say it’s wrong. We use euphemistic terms like “white lie” or “fibbing” to ease our guilt. But more often than not, we go right on ahead and continue to stretch the truth anyway—and for a variety of reasons.
We are not alone. In the animal kingdom, our adroitness at gaming others by means of lying is matched by birds, gorillas, and dolphins. Fascinating.
So fascinating in fact that, to date, one of my previous posts (“Why Do We Lie: Just Who is Brainy Enough to Master the Art of the Bluff?” posted September 22, 2013) remains among the most-read articles I’ve written for The Dolphin Divide.
While the article itself deals with the psychological basis for lying as a pursuit spurred by both behavioral conditioning as well as by cognitive evolutionary biology, it apparently left a number of questions burning in the minds of readers.
From my files of correspondences with Psychology Today readers, I reprint some of them here, together with my responses.
At the end of the first month of the New Year, I find myself eagerly anticipating an ongoing dialogue about the complexities of lying, and I invite your further thoughts on the subject for possible publication in a future post.
It seems that in this season of New Year’s resolutions, many of us have yet to arrive at any kind of firm resolve when it comes to the frightful prospect of rigorous truth-telling.
Submitted for your consideration:
What is your opinion on the saying, “Honesty is the best policy?”
I think sayings like this tend to capture a kind of collective cultural wisdom. I think the collective experience of our culture, over time, has been that being honest tends to keep most of us out of trouble most of the time, and that honesty in general tends to promote the wellbeing of the culture overall. Therefore, we tend to perpetuate values like truth-telling for the overall good of the social interactions within our culture.
That said, I don’t think honesty is the best policy in all cases, and so we each evaluate (sometimes consciously and sometimes more automatically and below the level of our conscious thinking) specific circumstances we are faced with and end up making individual decisions about whether to lie or tell the truth, depending upon what seems to be at stake at the moment.
Sometimes, this blends nicely with the cultural value of truth-telling and we feel fine, but at other times we decide a lie is called for. We tell the lie—and then often feel guilty because we know our decision doesn’t adhere to the larger social value of telling the truth.
Do you think lying is always necessary in order to get out of tough situations?
No, I don’t. Lots of times, I think tough situations can be better navigated by telling the truth as diplomatically and directly as possible. Unfortunately, this prospect makes a lot of people uncomfortable so, in the moment, it sometimes feels easier to lie.
Whether it’s better to lie or tell the truth under such circumstances is difficult to tell. I think people make their best guess and then sit back to see how things play out. The feedback they get from such experiences often informs their future decisions about whether to lie or tell the truth.
While reading your article, I noticed you mention that people don’t know whether their lie(s) will pay off. Why do you think people take the risk of lying rather than just being honest?
This is a good question, and I think it’s the one we most often ask ourselves and each other when it comes to why we lie. The article, of course, deals with this at length, but I think there are really two very short answers to this question.
First, I think sometimes people are motivated to lie by the thrill of seeing whether or not they can get away with it.
More often, though, I think it’s because people feel there is something useful or helpful to be gained by lying – either for oneself or for someone else. Lies like this can be motivated by many things: the possibility of looking good, avoidance of fear, the preservation of privacy, and sometimes even the need to survive some kind of extreme circumstance in which the truth could bring about devastatingly harmful consequences.
You said lying can enhance someone’s social standing. In my personal opinion, I often see people who lie as not being trustworthy. So, can you explain what you mean by enhancing a person’s social standing?
You’re right, of course. But sometimes being perceived as untrustworthy (or even taking the risk of being perceived that way) seems like an acceptable trade-off if there’s some more desirable thing at stake. This is probably especially true if the relationship someone risks burning beyond repair is with someone who won’t normally have to be dealt with again – a stranger, for example.
Also, sometimes un-trustworthiness is a matter of degree. Someone’s thinking might run like this: What if I tell a lie and am caught? Maybe I’ll only appear a little bit untrustworthy because of the circumstances, or because the person who may catch me in the lie knows that I generally behave in a trustworthy manner. So my degree of trustworthiness will take a hit, but maybe not an irreparable hit.
In another scenario, it could be that trustworthiness as a cultural value doesn’t count as much as something else counts in the culture. Say, like taking care of business. If someone lies and is caught in a culture like this, it could still be worth being exposed in the lie if, for example, some important thing gets accomplished as a result of the lie.
A more simple example of a person’s social standing is enhanced by a lie (if, as you hinted at, the lie goes undetected) is the fisherman who brags to his buddies about how many fish he caught. If the lie seems impressive without being so outlandish as to give away the fact that it’s a lie, the fisherman may well earn the esteem of his fellows even if earned by lying rather than fish-catching. Ultimately, social standing is important for social animals such as ourselves because alliances that help us survive are largely built upon our status in the eyes of others.
What is your opinion about telling “white lies”? Do you think they are as harmless as people claim?
I think that depends upon the circumstances.
Sometimes lies can bring about good without risking much going wrong. Saying something nice about someone’s new sweater, for example, when really you don’t find it all that attractive. There’s probably very little downside to this—but then again, one never knows.
What if the sweater is really terrible, but five people tell “white lies” about how nice it is – and then the person being lied to goes out and buys 20 ugly sweaters? Have they been harmed by the lies, or not?
Maybe they have. What if the person is single and is trying to wear nice-looking sweaters to get dates? Maybe this person won’t get dates. Could they ultimately miss finding that right person or relationship that can make them happy? Or will the person just feel a little better about himself or herself for that day because they’ve been lied to by five people? Maybe the lies will provide a confidence booster that some special someone will find very attractive, and years later they can joke about how they met because of that awful-looking sweater.
In the end, I guess I think that the decision to tell “white lies”, larger lies, or the truth should be weighed as carefully as possible because one never knows what the results will be before they play out – and then, it’s generally too late to do anything about it.
Where and how do you think children learn to lie at such a young age?
I think we all learn to lie at very young ages no matter where we are. As the article mentioned, we all seem to experiment with various forms of deception and lying, starting at around the age of six months, and we continue to hone our lying skills over the next four years.
I think that tells us that lying is a complicated business – as complicated as any other form of communication – and that it’s so complicated that we have to practice it over time if we are ever going to use it to our advantage.
The fact that lying is so universal and starts at such a young age I think also tells us something important about the survival value of lying, at least for social animals – and that lying is a tool we all inherit as a result of the social pressures of evolutionary biology.
If that’s right, then lying, like other tools, is neither good nor bad per se. It’s just something, like a hammer or a screwdriver, that can be used if the job at hand seems to call for it.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the tools meant to help us won’t also sometimes injure us, depending upon how carefully or recklessly we use them.